Different “Windows” or Why I Walked Out

January 4, 2010

Where you see flowers, a rabbit sees lunch. Where most of us would have noticed pesky burrs stuck to our clothing, in 1948 George de Mestral on a walk with his dog visualized Velcro.

Our perspective shapes our experience. Brazilian Jarbas Agnelli reading the newspaper one day, regarded a color photograph of black birds sitting on electric wires. The picture was not simply seen as an idyllic scene, since to that artist’s eye, the birds’ placement reminded him of musical notation. “I knew it wasn’t the most original idea in the universe,” Agnelli writes on his website. “I was just curious to hear what melody the birds were creating.

So, Agnelli translated from “bird” to “note” and here we see the fascinating result.


During a mediation session, each party brings a lens through which he or she views a common situation. Where you might believe you sold me a car in good faith, I might interpret your actions as less than honorable. We each take a subset of the available data and try to make sense of where we stand. To calm down the parties when their interpretations of reality are markedly different, I like to say that we are each looking at a situation from different “windows.”

I had a personal experience of multiple windows while watching the movie “Avatar.” The theatre was packed as seemed appropriate given the positive reviews the movie had consistently received. Set on the imaginary planet of Pandora, the story describes a conflict between Earthings who have come to mine resources and the tall blue Pandorians who seek to protect their world and way of life. As one reviewer wrote, “if you’ve seen ‘Dances of Wolves’ you know the plot.”

Every good movie has a conflict to be resolved. Even if someone isn’t screaming at another, all compelling pictures present a sticky challenge/conflict that the protagonists must overcome. For example, will the hero win the girl? Can our star overcome poverty and solve her problems? or Can they save the world?

After studying conflict for the past 16 years, I can’t help but notice what approaches the protagonists use to resolve the concocted struggle. “Invictus” for example, was delicious as I witnessed Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela creatively employ the Rugby World Cup to rebuild a nation. As you can imagine, life was good while watching “Invictus” from my window!

After working this fall with university students from Pakistan’s FATA region, I have been actively wrestling with why must humans continue to use violence, and war as a knee jerk reaction. I care about these young Pakistanis. Knowing that they are each living now in a war zone, makes my contemplation of this question more than academic.

Mandela reminds me that we can transcend the old strategies of revenge and destruction. Out of love for these students, and others who I have taught from Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Libya and other past and current conflict zones, I want to hope that we can follow Mandela’s, Gandhi’s, Martin Luther King’s and HH Dalai Lama’s lead and shift as a species.

So, when the protagonists and antagonists responded in “Avatar” with violence,  I was disheartened. How I wanted a creative resolution! How I wanted the old “they have harmed us enough that we must kill” paradigm to be proven obsolete…especially by the seemingly enlightened and sexy seven-feet-tall blue beings! But no luck. After I had my fill of machine guns, arrows and death, I was probably the only person in America to walk out in the middle of “Avatar.” I knew the rest of the story without reading any spoilers; it’s just too common of a human tale.

If I had pulled out the movie technology lens like many of the reviewers, I would have been delighted by the film. If I had thrown on the glasses of a mythology student, I might have enjoyed how the hero’s spiritual journey was portrayed. But, that day, realizing how many innocent people are at risk due to the often unchallenged belief that revenge and killing can be justified, I couldn’t bear to watch it played out as entertainment. I thought of my international students, and instead needed to recover my composure in the lobby.

Everything depends on our windows.  George de Mestral saw velcro.  Jarbas Agnelli saw music.  Nelson Mandela saw the possibility of his country. In each of them, I thankfully see hope for our future.

And, by my departure from the theatre I also see that I am not done learning the subtle balance between caring deeply and objectivity. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was slavery abolished.  I want to hold a vision for productive strategies for resolving conflict without becoming as discouraged about the human condition as I was sitting outside the theatre that evening.  We can change — we are changing — that’s the view I want to see from this window.

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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